Cooking is a beloved pastime for some and a dreaded chore for others. No matter where you fall on this scale, however, almost every family in the country could stand to cook healthier meals. Americans tend to lack vegetables, fruits, and whole grains in their diets. Fortunately, there are plenty of easy ways to get these food groups in your diet and to make your meals generally healthier.

5 Secrets to Cooking Healthier This Year

All of these tips hinge on cooking at home, which is perhaps the most important secret of all to cooking healthier. By cooking at home, you can control the ingredients and you get to make exactly what you like. Luckily, this may not be a huge change for your family as cooking at home has become the norm recently, with a 2020 survey showing that 98% of Americans prefer to prepare a meal by cooking at home. Get your cooking supplies ready and let’s take a look at some of the key secrets to cooking healthier meals at home.

1. Create a Plan

Oftentimes, the unhealthiest meals come from not having a plan for what to make for dinner. Try to avoid resorting to unhealthy packaged or frozen foods by making a meal plan at the beginning of the week. This plan can be as detailed or as vague as you like. Some people benefit from writing out a complete menu and accompanying grocery list while others just need to write down “pasta night” or “taco night” and can go from there. Whatever your method, a meal plan will set you up for successful healthy cooking.

2. Choose Whole Grains

As we mentioned, Americans don’t get enough whole grains in their diets. Instead, they tend to eat more refined grains, which are not as good for your health. Try choosing whole grains at least 50% of the time. Opt for grains such as brown rice and bulgur when you’re shopping, as their intact bran gives them more fiber, magnesium, zinc, and B vitamins. Other good whole grains are quinoa, oats, whole wheat pasta, barley, and farro.

3. Limit Added Salt and Sugar

Consuming too much salt or sugar can eventually lead to health conditions such as heart disease or high blood pressure. Sugar, especially, also isn’t good for your dental health, as seen when researchers found that consuming energy drinks lead to twice as much enamel loss as drinking sports drinks. Unfortunately, many people eat and drink more than the recommended amount of added sugars and sodium every day, frequently putting their health at risk without even knowing it.

Try to have less than six teaspoons of added sugar per day if you’re a woman and less than nine teaspoons per day if you’re a man. You can lower your sugar intake by checking ingredient labels on products and using sweeteners sparingly. For salt, everyone should aim for eating no more than 2,300 mg per day. Try to cook with fresh whole foods as much as possible and skip the processed foods, as that is where sodium is mostly found.

4. Include Healthy Fats

Contrary to popular belief, not all fat is bad. By adding healthy fats to your meals, you will likely get full more quickly and be able to stick to reasonable portions. Fat can also help you absorb nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E, and K. Perhaps best of all, fat makes food taste good. Just be sure to choose unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, avocados, and nuts, over saturated fats like butter.

5. Set Up Your Kitchen for Healthy Eating

It will be nearly impossible to cook healthier meals if the space in which you cook those meals isn’t conducive to this goal. If your kitchen is outdated or cramped, it may be causing you to spend as little time in there as possible and resort to quick, unhealthy meal choices. An impressive one-third of homeowners in a Houzz poll said they changed to a healthier lifestyle after remodeling their kitchen. By creating a space that you want to spend time in and inspires you to create delicious and healthy meals, you’ll be more likely to do so.

If an entire kitchen remodel isn’t in the cards for you, don’t worry. You can still make changes to your kitchen that encourage healthier cooking. Start with your pantry and fridge. Keep all of the healthy ingredients towards the front of the shelves and push the unhealthier options towards the back. Cooking often comes down to convenience and if the healthy choices are front and center, you’ll be more likely to grab them. Try to work with the kitchen you have to create as much room as possible so that cooking isn’t as much of a challenge. If you don’t like cooking because your kitchen’s location cuts you off from the rest of your family, ask a family member to help you prep so that you can still socialize while creating a healthy meal for everyone.

These are just a few secrets to cooking healthier. As you follow these tips and others, don’t forget to enjoy the occasional treat. Depriving yourself of all desserts or snacks that bring you joy will only backfire in the long run. While you shouldn’t overindulge all the time, mindful snacking is perfectly allowable in the world of healthy cooking.